Communities

HONOR FLIGHT – A heartfelt ‘welcome home’ after 50 years

TOM BORTNER AND HIS NEPHEW AT THE VIETNAM MEMORIAL WALL IN WASHINGTON, D.C. Photo provided

For Tom Bortner of Creswell, his recent participation in the South Willamette Honor Flight to Washington D.C., ”was a true heartfelt ‘Welcome Home’ finally after 50 years!”
When Bortner learned two and a half years ago that Vietnam vets were being honored, he applied. Bortner was contacted for the all-expense paid trip ”out of the blue,” he said.
Bortner joined 44 other war veterans, accompanied by self-paying ”guardians” who made sure their charges were up and ready to go, as each of the days were full of tours and sightseeing to the war memorials situated around the Capitol.
As they landed at Reagan Airport, fire engines shot water over the plane; the airport was full of welcoming people clapping and shaking their hands, making Bortner feel like, ”he had been playing a World Series winning game.”
The next morning they loaded onto two motorcoaches to immediately join a flag-clad motorcycle parade; proudly escorted through traffic, when they saw the DC Police turning on lights and sirens to further part the way.
Bortner said he was impressed by the comparatively new World War II Memorial. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant motorcoaches took the vets as close as they could and, where applicable, the guardians pushed the wheelchairs closer for viewing.
Bortner walked to the Vietnam Wall, where he checked for friends’ names killed in action from his Garden Grove, Calif., hometown.
He said he was surprised when his nephew and girlfriend, who live in Maryland, found him at the long, black wall, for he had been told the schedule was too packed to notify friends to stop by. They stayed together long enough to walk to the Korean Memorial.
The group then went on to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial where the Honor Flight organizers had lunch ready for them. All of this was documented by KVAL Television and Journalist David Walker for viewing back in Eugene, Ore.
After a stop at the Navy Museum in downtown D.C, they went to Arlington National Cemetery. The buses drove to the top of the cemetery, where wheelchairs were at the ready, meeting the others who rode the park tram. Bortner said he was thrilled to see The Changing of the Guard with his veteran friends, while their group was part of putting a wreath at the tomb.
He said he learned the important facts about the soldiers who apply to walk the 21 steps 24 hours a day, in all kinds of weather. He said he was amazed that 90 percent ”wash out” before becoming a tomb guard.
He said he heard the distinctive shoes clicking as the guards paused, turning after 21 seconds, back and forth. They are relieved after 30 minutes, but maintain their demeanor, as commanded, even in their free time. If not, they lose their status as tomb guards.
The buses drove around the Iwo Jima Memorial. He said he, ”had no idea it was so large.”
The group was honored at a Virginia Elks Lodge with a welcome and dinner and mail call. Manila envelopes containing school children’s letters, with hand-drawn pictures were collected in advance for each. The vets sang a few patriotic songs before being taken back to Arlington, Va. for the night.
A time with each other followed, where Tom said he was impressed by a former prisoner of war who spent two and a half years imprisoned during the Korean War. He said the the man’s, ”smiles and stories filled the Vets with immediate love for the hero.”
They were not done though, as the next morning they again loaded the buses to go to the Smithsonian Air Museum at Dulles Airport, followed by the view of the towering Air Force Memorial, back in The District.
They returned to Reagan to board the donated Alaska Airlines plane, flying non-stop to Oregon.
After landing in Portland, the group was again honored by folks clapping, shaking of hands and ”thanks for your service” cheers. The welcoming committee had waited for the vets, standing in the rain or driving in police cars and fire trucks while Transportation Security Administration too, focused on them.
Bortner’s faithful guardian drove him from Portland to Creswell while Bortner sorted through the events of the Honor Flight and places he had seen, including his memories of flags and bagpipes, finally after 50 years.